Protesters block a coal train from entering downtown Missoula in 2015. (Blue Skies Campaign)
Montana communities won a victory against one of the world’s biggest coal companies earlier this month, when Arch Coal abandoned the Otter Creek mine – the largest proposed new coal strip mine in North America. The story of how the project imploded is one of people power triumphing over a company once thought to be nearly invincible.
To many observers, the Otter Creek project once seemed unstoppable. It certainly appeared that way in 2011, the year I moved to Missoula, Montana for graduate school. Then-Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer enthusiastically supported the mine, and coal more generally. Forrest Mars, Jr., the billionaire heir to the Mars candy fortune, had just joined Arch and BNSF Railways in backing a proposed railroad spur meant to service Otter Creek. Arch and politicians like Schweitzer predicted a boom in coal demand from economies in Asia.
But what they weren’t counting on was a vocal and active region-wide opposition. The coming together of ordinary people — first in southeast Montana, then an ever-growing number of communities throughout the Northwest —to oppose the Otter Creek mine says much about how land defenders and climate activists are learning to fight back against the planet’s biggest energy companies. The roots of this recent victory go back more than 30 years.